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Google's Foreign Pharmacy Ad Ban Cut Traffic to Uncertified Drug Websites


The overall impact of the ban was heterogeneous, but non-reputable drug retailers did suffer most from the action.

In 2011, Google agreed to pay $500 million to the Justice Department (DOJ) for hosting advertisements for offshore (and sometimes unregistered or illegal) online pharmacies. The company subsequently banned advertising from pharmacies not registered with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) in sponsored searches. That covered almost all foreign pharmacies—even those registered in their own countries—and some domestic operations.

A new study found that the overall impact of the ban was heterogeneous, but non-reputable drug retailers did suffer most from the action.

“The ban increases the technical difficulty of accessing a banned pharmacy website via the search engine: a website that appeared in the sponsored search before the ban but did not rank high in the organic results may lose its visibility and consumer attention,” the study explains. Authored by Lehigh University’s Daisy Dai, the University of Maryland’s Ginger Jin, and Matthew Chesnes of the Federal Trade Commission, it was published this week in Marketing Science.

The team used comScore sponsored and organic click data for over 500 of the most common health-related search inquiries. They also built “synthetic” health-related control websites that exhibited identical click trends as the non-NABP pharmacy sites did before the ban. They used these to track whether changes in traffic were caused by the ban.

Pharmacy websites were classified into 3 tiers: NABP-certified retailers in tier-A, retailers certified by other domestic or foreign agencies in tier-B, and uncertified sites in tier-C. After the ban, paid clicks for both tier-B and tier-C sites plummeted to almost 0, although the study noted that some of the tier-C sites were able to maintain a few clicks by labeling themselves as sellers of nutritional supplements. Screening for such sites remains imperfect.

The most noticeable shift from sponsored to organic clicks were for searches related to drugs that treat chronic conditions. The findings suggested that “many consumers, especially those searching for affordable longterm supply of chronic drugs, are aware of credentialing agencies for foreign online pharmacies and use them as a way to discern the quality of online pharmacies.”

Organic clicks for tier-B sites did increase after the ban, compensating for most of the traffic lost after they were banned from paid search. Tier-C sites did not see substantial increases in organic traffic, and their clicks from pharmacy-related Google searches dropped from a 39.8% share before the ban to just 7.1% following Google’s DOJ settlement.

"Even though the ban does not eliminate access to foreign pharmacies, the ban does nudge consumers to avoid completely uncertified pharmacies, where safety and quality concerns are potentially the greatest,” Dai said in a statement. Foreign pharmacies, like many of those in tier-B, may be reputable. The importation of FDA-controlled drugs, however, is still illegal.

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